Sunday, 30 May 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

... an Ursidae statikós stood in her way.

To bring to an end this series about the creatures (and plants, as you will be able to read below) that populate the London Underground, we'll focus on the actual train today. If you want to read about the specimens that populate the escalators click here, or alternatively you can read about the ones that roam around on the platforms here.

(affects David Attenborough's voice)

The Tube is a fascinating micro-representation of Darwin's landmark scientific work 'The Origin of the Species'. Once the train doors close (and provided there's no Delphinidae vīvāx around to stop them from doing so), the struggle for survival ensues.

Taking centre stage - literally - we have the first specimen: the Gorgo Lavatera Hūmānus. As the name indicates this is a flowering plant. But do not be fooled by its appearance. Passengers that dare to cross a GLH, are turned to stone and will miss their stop. (squats) Watch! (whispers) These are the roots of the human lavatera. They are so strong that when trains are taken to the depot at the end of their journey, extra staff are usually called to deal with these underground organs. What does the Gorgo Lavatera Hūmānus do? It boards the train and regardless of the amount of people in it, it heads for the pole in the middle of the carriage and grabs hold of it. There it grows roots whilst in the opposite direction it spits out a mix of annual, biennial and perennial herbaceous plants and soft-wooded shrubs. The beauty of its flowers hardly compensates for the discomfort it causes, especially during peak-hours. Whenever a passenger tries to get on or off the train, he or she has to negotiate his/her way around the Gorgo Lavatera Hūmānus, who in turn, remains defiant on the face of the discomfort inflicted on its fellow travellers.

The second species today (rising up) is the Gryllidae Urbanus, otherwise known as the 'Tube DJ'. This is a creature whose countenance has mutated over the years. In the 80s they were commonly seen holding a big stereo with large antennae sitting on their shoulders, spreading loud music partout. Nowadays they're the proud owners of mp3, iPods, iPhones and whatever technological gadget they can lay their hands on. These they use to broadcast the music they like to a trainful of people who might be of a different melodic bent. Any attempt to reason with a Tube DJ is futile as they have lost the ability to speak coherently and can only express themselves with chirping sounds. The existence of ears in these animals have proved to be a debatable issue for many scientists. I would like to throw my hat in the ring now and declare that I once saw a Gryllidae Urbanus's ears burst into flames on the Victoria Line when a (very loud) session including Motörhead, Metallica and Slayer became unbearable not only for the DJ, but also for the passengers around him. Unfortunately the human music box could not press 'stop' on time and his head (including his ears) became a mushroom of flames. It shoud be noted that sympathy was in short supply at the scene of the accident as the majority of the commuters gave a sigh of relief when the DJ was being devoured by the fire.

(looking at the camera) This is a magic moment. The camera you see now will disappear before your eyes. And it will all be done by mirrors. This field device is being tested on the Ursidae Statikós. The results look promising. The 'Underground Bear' (another name for this creature) only gets on the train when he or she (usually a 'he') thinks the coast is clear. But what's clear to you, it's crowded to the rest of us. It just takes a small gap in the train to trigger off a bout of optimism in the Ursidae Statikós and he will charge towards that space no matter what. Stocky legs, a long snout, shaggy hair, you might think I'm describing Jeremy Clarkson, but no, that's what this underground species looks like. Coupled with their bulkiness and robustness, it shouldn't come as a surprise that many passengers have felt suffocated when they find themselves between an Underground Bear and the train doors. However, these creatures are harmless. Their danger only comes from not realising their own physical power. For instance, as soon as a train arrives at the platform, the Ursidae Statikós will stand aside to let people off the carriage and allow others to get on. But no sooner has he spotted a space that he thinks will accommodate his large size, than he will make off for it regardless of the consequences. Which, come to think of it, are serious. Overturned buggies (with crying children on arms), creased clothes, trod-upon shoes, It's all there. But the Underground Bear will remain unaware. He'll just give his Yogi smile and will continue his journey blissfully ignorant of the chaos around him.

(in the studio, doing the voice-over) These are but three species of the many members we find in both the flora and fauna in the London Underground. Unfortunately we don't have time to cover them all: for instance, the Mustelidae Pervertere who has the undesirable habit of getting too close to the female anatomy (especially from behind) in full carriages. By contrast the Canis Familiaris Polītus is the epitome of courtesy and decency. Here's a creature who will give up his or her seat for an elderly person or a pregnant woman. Yet more evidence of the fascinating micro-cosmos we find in the London Underground.

© 2010

Image taken from

Next Post: 'Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts', to be published on Tuesday 1st June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One Where the Present Perfect Overthrows the Simple Past)

I still don't know where the first spear came from. My only memory of it is wondering how it'd landed on my shield.

We were supposed to be a compact phalanx. A sea of overlappping shields and layered spear points ready to defend the enemy's target: the Headquarters of Verb Tenses. On the other side, the well-equipped forces of the Bad Grammar brigade. Numbering close to a million troops, they had been involved in skirmishes with us before, but we had never faced the prospect of a full-on battle as fierce and gory as the one unravelling before our eyes.

In reality the situation in which we found ourselves at the time should not have come as a surprise. The first salvo, as I remember, was shot on Gillette Soccer Saturday and I was sad to see its popular host Jeff Stelling presiding over the initial stages of the destruction of the Simple Past Tense. Here's the perpetrator-in-chief, Paul Merson: 'Great ball from, uh, Neville on the halfway line, he's played in Ronaldo, who's flicked it back to Berbatov (...) it's fell (sic) to Ronaldo, he's spun on it and he's seen...' I'd already stopped listening by then. "He's played in Ronaldo?' Excuse me? How about: 'He played in Ronaldo, who flicked it to Berbatov (...) it fell to Ronaldo, he span on it and he saw...'? Done and dealt with. In the past.

As a GSS devotee, it was not hard for me to realise that Paul was far from being the only analyst who indulged in simple past tense-annihilation. Almost every other match reporter made the same mistake: from articulate Scott Minto to Liverpool die-hard Phil Thompson. What caught me unawares was how popular the practice was becoming outside the studio, viz., in our daily lives. I, then, began to pay close attention to the conversations around me and the results, if truth be told, were less than encouraging.

A few examples chosen at random. "I've gone to the market yesterday and...", "I've seen you jogging the other day...", "Last night I've sent the car to the garage for an MOT, I hope..." Well, I hope the car is in better health than the owner, methinks. At least linguistically speaking.

That's why, based on the howlers above, I summoned my troops and on we headed to the Verb Tenses' main building. Roughly five thousand women and men, willing to lay down their lives to defend our grammar. But we knew that we were in no position to underestimate the enemy. They outnumbered us. Still, we were faring better: radio and television presenters still managed to differentiate the simple past (used to refer to a definite, finished action in the past) from the present perfect (used with have+past participle to refer to an action that has finished prior to the present). The print media had not fallen that low yet and has continued (at least the broadsheets and magazines I read) to abide by the rules. But even I was not prepared for the most abject act of betrayal.

By the end of the second day of battle, the Bad Grammar's infantry division had suffered a heavy defeat. And just as its leader was pondering on how to overpower us, fortune smiled at him in the shape of... a teacher. The traitor showed the chief of the rebel forces a secret path that would bring him around to our rear. Although I repudiated his actions at the time, I can understand his motivation now with the benefit of hindsight: he wanted change. He wanted language to be more flexible, English to be less obedient to unbending grammar precepts set down by academics in locked up cages and people to claim ownership of their language.

Three hundred troops. That's what was left at the end. We battled until the very end but we lost. Except for radio, television and the written press, the present perfect has overthrown the simple past in our day-to-day parlance. As Paul Merson would put it: 'PP's come down the right handside, turned on SP, left him behind and hit the ball into the top left corner'.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 30th May at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Killer Opening Songs (Bitterheart by Zee Avi)

A five-star review of a recent concert in the local newspaper, an interview with the singer where she waxed lyrical on her sources of inspiration and that feeling of 'easy like Sunday morning' that casts a spell on holiday-makers, were the only reasons Killer Opening Songs needed to make his way to the nearest shopping centre in Kuala Lumpur and buy Zee Avi's debut album 'Zee Avi'.

Lured by the sound of her voice when the shop assistant played the CD in the music store, it took Our Regular Rendezvous with Introductory Tracks with Homicidal Tendencies just one nanosecond to decide that this record would have to be added to his music collection.

A sleeper hit that has been making inroads and garnering plaudits since its release last year (and hopefully this post will contribute to raising awareness of the existence of such a beauty), 'Zee Avi' showcases the songwriting prowess of this twenty-four-year-old who hails from the island of Borneo, eastwards of Malaysia.

And at the heart of this success is the Killer Opening Song: 'Bitterheart'. K.O.S. confesses to having missed the core message of the track and only 'got' it when he put it on his mp3 player recently. By which time, he'd already decided to give it a slot on his blog.

Upbeat tempo, refreshing voice and perkiness. Not the combination of words and phrases that comes to mind when you think of songs about disappointment, disillusion and let-downs. And as if to confuse the listener even more the first four lines promise a bright start: 'Sun rays come down/as seen when they hit the ground/Children spinning around/Til’ they fall down down down'. But then we're faced with the real dilemma: 'I wait for you/It’s been two hours now/and you’re still somewhere in town/your dinner’s getting cold'. Oh dear.

'Bitterheart' is that type of composition whose brevity belies its intensity. At just over two and a half minutes long, it's one of the sweetest tongue-lashings K.O.S. has ever heard; a sharp contrast to Kelis's 'Caught Out There' for sure. The track mixes angst with self-containment ('Bitter heart, bitter heart/tries to keep it all inside') and there's even a semi-ultimatum at the end ('so tell me what’s her name').

'Bitterheart' is also the open sesame of a cluster of mesmerising melodies that will have you humming them for days on end. On this very space, we've already had 'Honeybee', a song that manages to be defiant and romantic at the same time. 'Poppy' is a sad, jazzy tune about the effects of heroine on a loved one ('My baby he don’t act like himself no more/he lost that smile I used to adore/he spent his nights slapping his veins/he lost that glow he used to have in his face'). 'Kantoi' is a ukelele-driven track sung in both Malay and English that tells an amusing modern story of deception. And although Killer Opening Songs is not a big fan of The Smiths or its frontman, Morrissey, Zee Avi's cover of 'First of the Gang' is superb. Pared down to the bare minimum acoustic accompaniment, a guitar in her case, the song had K.O.S. repeating the last lines long after it'd finished: 'And he stole from the rich and the poor/ and the not-very-rich and the very poor/and he stole all hearts away/he stole all hearts away/he stole all hearts away/he stole all hearts away '.

Ironically, Zee Avi was last seen carrying K.O.S.'s heart away.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 27th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Maca Root Face Scrub, Maca Root Shave Cream, Wooden Shaving Brush, Maca Root Razor Relief. Pardon? Yes, in a minute, just let me finish. Nivea Shower Gel (Energy), alternatively Shea or Coconut Bath Shower Gel/Cream, Shea or Hemp Body Butter... yes? How long will I be? Hmmm... I was just about to finish, but you keep interrupting me.

All right, then, since you insist. I was busy counting the beauty products in my basket. And I still have not included the Activist Roll Deodorant and the Honey & Oat 3 In 1 Scrub Mask. But I'd better stop now and roll out the theme of this week's column: metrosexuality.

Twenty-five years ago when I was a teenager one of my wishes was to have a thick mustache. Handlebar or Stalinesque, it didn't matter, I wanted to belong to the 'heavily-hirsute' brigade. In my dreams I could even aspire to the Order of the Barbellate. In vain I shaved the isolated hairs on my chin. My whiskers had done a Houdini. The few bristles I got were so separate from each other that I thought of writing alternative versions of 'Robinson Crusoe' based on each of them. With no Friday this time. Occasionally my Shangri-la-like existence brought me benefits. I rarely got ID-ed by coppers on account of looking younger. Teachers trusted me because I conveyed reliability and how could someone with such angelic face be cutting classes? Well, actually, I was. Also, since I was acne-free, I was luckier than some of my peers with the opposite sex.

Still, I thirsted for a mustache. And when the first signs of a real one appeared I let it grow and wished it'd develop into a fully-fledged, professional fellow. A facial companion, one of the boys. I dared not wish for a beard, though, because that'd have been taking a bit too far, but hey, mustache with goatee, anyone? Alas, that initial spurt fell short of what I expected and I was left for many years with what turned out to be a poor imitiation of an electrocardiogram's flatline above my upper lip.

It took me a while to get used to my (almost) hairless face, but accept it I did and with time there came the benefits. Step forward now, David Beckham.

As a Chelsea fan, I'd never had much time for the Manchester United midfielder, but when Mr Posh Spice stepped out with his consort one night whilst wearing a sarong (image here, in case you've forgotten), the hard-fought rights of metrosexuals around the world were instantly vindicated. Because a few years before that historic photograph, I, too, had started my voyage through the grey area of male grooming.

I confess that my wife played a part in that. After picking me up from Gatwick Airport and on the way to her house the first time I came over to the UK she commented on my recently-shaved face: 'Hmmm, it looks nice!' whilst stroking it with her left hand. That was further supported - fortuitously, I swear - by a feature on the radio programme to which we both were listening and where there was a debate about the pros and cons of hirsuteness. When a listener phoned up to say that hairless, smooth faces were a pleasure to touch, my spouse's hand reached out again and slid down my cheeks as if in solidarity with the caller. My only attempt to grow a goatee since then has met defeat. Despite it being so small that I can count the hairs in it (eight at the latest roll call) my consort always reminds me, playfully, that it tickles her when I kiss her. Faced with no-kiss vs pretend-goatee, it's goatee out on the street.

But the phenomenon of metrosexuals is one of those complex issues that demands closer inspection. Is it a riposte against a macho culture that was imposed on us, blokes - although admittedly, one from which we've clearly benefited - and therefore completely natural? Or is it a desire to compete (yet again!) with women, this time in their so-called territory, i.e., beauty products? Or is it an unconscious/conscious blurring between what's straight and what's gay?

What is beyond doubt is that it is a profitable marketing tool. Metrosexuality sells and it sells a lot. Calvin Klein underwear, Giorgio Armani fragrances, Gap jeans, Fcuk T-shirts and Bodyshop shaving paraphernalia (the majority of the products listed at the beginning of this post belong to the latter) all cater to the urban male who is in touch with his feminine side. Beckham blazed the trail but another Manchester United alumnus, Cristiano Ronaldo (currently playing for Real Madrid and Portugal), has inherited the sceptre. Look at his face and body and you're looking at a metrosexual in the last stage of his life cycle: no more caterpillar or pupa, but a butterfly. And how they flutter their wings! Sorry, correction, we flutter our wings.

Another aspect of the metrosexual is that he no longer belongs to an age group. Whereas at the beginning it used to be young single men with high disposable income who splashed out on colognes, shoes and clothes to make a fashion statement, now it can be any bloke from dads to grandparents. In fact, a spin-off of metrosexuality is the rise of the 'yummy dad' phenomenon in recent years. Dad dancing himself silly at daughter's wedding to the horror and embarrassment of relatives and guests? Perish the thought. Rather, papa kitted out in American Apparel and with man-bag from Republic slung on his shoulder.

And women are part of the picture, too. The advertisement that accompanies many of the products flogged to metrosexuals is based on the idea that women have forsaken traditional masculinity - the Charles Bronson type of man - and gone instead for a softer, more effeminate kind. Gillette has surely made a pretty penny out of that concept.

By the way, and let me open a bracket here. I might have given the impression so far that I'm only referring to the hairless fella as the epitome of metrosexuality. No, no, no. There are many metrosexuals who sport beards and goatees galore. But the main difference with their hairy caveman counterparts, is that stuble trimmers make their hirsute displays look like a wild English garden: loads of shrubs, flowers and plants in the middle, yet the demarcations are well defined. Mathematicians are even involved in working out angles and straight edges. Close bracket.

And as if the above was not enough now comes a further twist in this metrosexual vs traditional male type saga: the übersexual. And again, I see myself gravitating to, or rather, being included in another group whose existence was unknown to me before. According to Marian Salzman, co-author of 'The Future of Men', a book about trends, real and imaginary amongst blokes, übersexuals retain some characteristics of the metrosexual world (grooming products mainly), but they are more in tune with politics and social issues than their modern dandy opposites. Übersexuals read 'The Economist', 'The New Statesman' and 'The New Yorker', which, incidentally, are publications commonly found on my coffee table at home. I say, it's just another category for another era, another label for marketing (male!) executives. In the meantime, I'm off to Bodyshop, I just ran out of Warming Mineral Mask.

Although I no longer do the 'award' thingy on my blog, I will make an exception this week. Last time it was Lizzy Frizzfrock who tagged me (read my meme here) and alas, she was gone from this parish not long after. So, I hope the same fate does not await the blogger who gave me the award this time. Whilst I was away in Malaysia, Hema P, from 'Wading Through Words' passed me the Happiness 101 Award. The rules are simple: I have to list ten things that make me happy and then pass the award to five other bloggers. I will comply with the first part and will leave the second one as an option for anyone who would like to take up the challenge.

I'm not into 'happy things', but rather into 'things that make me feel satisfied'. The former, to me, is ephemeral whereas the latter lasts longer and leaves a sweeter taste. Yet, I've been asked to 'do happy' and happy I'll do. Here they go, in no particular order what or who make happy. And many thanks, Hema, for the award:

1- The moment my wife got her current job as teaching assistant at a primary school, supporting an autistic child. I got home and even before I asked her how her interview had gone the smile on her face confirmed what I suspected. She is a very talented and intelligent woman. I'm also happy because she will start doing her M.A. in September (in dance).

2- My children being so clever, articulate and brilliant. My son plays piano and saxophone, wants to become a naturalist (a term that has caused confusion when he says it aloud on account of it sounding pretty much like 'naturist', c'mon, say it quickly in a London accent) and loves school. My daughter plays the piano, too, does ballet and is starting to discover the world of contortion, to my bewilderment and parental angst sometimes.

3-My job. It not only makes happy but it makes feel satisfied (read above). At present I'm managing a project with eleven students from years 4 to 6 who are producing a five-minute short film. Pretty soon I will start a Film Club at my school. I manage the delivery of the Family Learning and Community programmes and it is a pleasure to contribute to my local area.

4-Being back on my bike (a pushbike) after a harsh winter. I've even appropriated Roger Taylor's timeless tune "I'm In Love With My Car" and turned it into "I'm in love with my bike". Even though my ride to and from work is less than ten minutes, I love biking and whenever I'm not behind the wheel I get on my bike instead. Mixed with the nice weather we're having (at the moment of writing) it makes for a wonderful experience.

5- Back in Cuba, I used to say I had four 'vices': theatre, literature, cinema and music. I called them vices, because I was addicted to them. Since my life is hectic nowadays, theatre is a rare pleasure - I mean shows for adults - so the other three remain my sources of solace and therefore a further division is called for. Music never ceases to amaze me. I don't want to have every single record in the world, not just because it's impossible, but also because I wouldn't be able to appreciate them all. Music needs a time and a place. I was playing the Mozart Requiem in the car recently and realised that there were parts to which I'd hardly paid any attention before, specifically the Agnus Dei and the Communio. I've always been keener on the Kyrie, Confutatis and Lacrimosa but the last two movements are the perfect coda to a perfect piece.

6- Cinema. Since signing up to LoveFilms, a DVD rental company, the experience for me has been the equivalent of Friends Reunited. I've been hiring and watching movies that I first saw in my teens or early twenties and for whom I have a special place in my heart. That's probably why my posts have widened up in scope to include films now.

7- Literature. Except for a couple of stinkers, the last ten years or so have been very, very fulfilling in terms of reading good books. I've come across new writers, or old writers of whose existence I was unaware. I've re-read classics that reinforced the idea that they ought to be classics and others that still did not convince me. I have exposed myself to new genres of which I was not too sure before, for instance gender politics. The only downside and I shouldn't mention this because this second part of today's post is all about the things that make me happy, is that I have grown shyer of picking up pen and paper to join the Borges and Ngozis of this world. Occasionally, I dare to delve into the world of creative writing as was the case last year when I posted this short story (here). The novel that I thought I would finish a few years ago is still stuck on page 47 (or is it 48 now?). Recently I went back to it and realised that it was no longer my voice that was calling the shots, but that of Ngugi, Rushdie and Atwood. My solution would be to stop reading all together for some months until I can get my inner voice back, the genuine one, mine one. But when I contemplate the sacrifice I would have to make, I opt to perform a hara-kiri on my own writing. No, that doesn't sound too happy. Reading makes me happy. And blogging. I love sitting at my computer with the blank page of Microsoft Word and playing. Because that's what we do in the end, don't we? We play with words.

8- The sea. I was born by the sea, in downtown Havana, bang in the centre and five minutes away from the biggest show on earth. The sea is a spectacle for which you don't have to pay and you always get front seats. I slept under the stars in my teens with the sea ten feet away from me when my mates and I went camping. I've seen the sea at its wildest and at its most peaceful and it's never, ever, disappointed me. I could watch it for hours. In fact, I've done it. One of my favourite activities when Cuba was going to the dogs in the 90s (did it ever come out of the kennel, I wonder?) was to walk down 23rd Avenue until I reached Malecón (the Seawall) and then go east or west, it didn't matter. I would climb on the wall and as I walked, I would think of the immortal words by the Cuban singer song-writer Carlos Varela: 'Mojas el pan en el plato vacío/Y apagas la televisión/Abres la ventana y miras afuera/La ciudad te espera en algún lugar/Sales a la calle y llegas al muro/Donde acaban todos/Donde empieza el mar'.

9- London. I love its people, its parks, its mind-blowing urban geography (it's so easy to get lost!), its vibrancy and the mix of old and new. I'm lucky to live in such a great city. And since 6pm last Saturday 15th May there's a special reason to love this city, too, and it's linked to sport, because I'm a sports person. Chelsea Football Club (southwest London) won the FA Cup and thus, landed a double for the first time in the club's history (that's Premier League and FA Cup for non-Brits). That happy moment, coupled with the Yankees winning last autumn and Industriales, my hometown baseball team, triumphing in the National Series in Cuba, has made it for a very happy period indeed. Also, whilst on the subject of London as a great place to live in, another thing that makes happy is teaching Afro-Cuban dance here and I've got a workshop lined up at The Place for early June. This is one of my favourite buildings in London because of what it means to the dance world and the shows I've watched in its theatre.

10- Life. And all the components of it. I just praised London in the paragraph above and now it's time to chastise my British chums. Just mildly, though. I know that self-deprecation is this nation's favourite sport. In fact, if self-effacement was an Olympic discipline, you'd probably get a gold medal in it. Correction, if self-deprecation was an Olympic sport, you'd probably get beaten by Germany on penalties in the final. But on a more serious note, love life, my friends, love life because as Janis said (and I'm repeating myself, for I've posted these lyrics before): 'In this world, if you read the papers, darling/You know everybody's fighting with each other/You got no one you can count on, dear/Not even your own brother/So if someone comes along/He gonna give you love and affection/I'd say get it while you can, yeah/Honey, get it while you can, yeah/Honey, grab it while you can/Don't you turn your back on love, no, no, no.'

© 2010

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Tuesday 25th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Vacas (Cows) by Julio Medem (Review)

Long before he became obsessed with penises and the sizes of them in 'Lucía y el Sexo' (Sex and Lucia), Basque director Julio Medem made three ground-breaking movies: 'Vacas' ('Cows'), 'La Ardilla Roja' ('The Red Squirrel') and 'Tierra' ('Earth'). Of this triumvirate 'Vacas' (Medem's opera prima) is probably the more meticulous one, traipsing as it does through the history and culture of the Basque Country.

The movie centres on the idea of how an act of cowardice can affect three generations of two families and fuel a rivalry that at times becomes bloody. Against the backdrop of the 1870s civil war that engulfed this part of Spain, Sergeant Carmelo Mendiluce tries to help fellow villager and army novice Manuel Irigibel when the latter joins the rebel forces. Manuel is filled with terror of the conflict and the fighting and it is this fear that causes Carmelo's death. To pretend that he, too, has been killed, Manuel covers himself with Carmelo's blood and returns to the village, kicking off a feud between the Irigibel and Mendiluce families. The situation is further complicated when many years after, a Romeo-and-Juliet scenario develops between two members of the warring clans.

'Vacas' is a powerful and in-depth study of Basque traditions. Decades after Manuel's coward act we see both families challenging each other over one of the region's rural sports: Aizkora proba (wood chopping). This is a competition where a wood cutter has to chop his way through a number of logs as quickly as possible whilst standing on the trunk. The eponymous bovines represent the agrarian nature of this fiercely patriotic corner of Spain. Medem uses also the cows as time machines to transport the viewer through the different generations (there are some beautiful moments where the camera remains fixed on a cow's gaze and slowly and, barely noticeable to the viewer, it takes him/her through the cow's eye, bringing them out to a different scene).

Special mention should be made of both sound and photography. The former is heightened by the director's decision to allow nature's very own voice to provide the movie's soundtrack. Thus, we are constantly exposed to the soft, crunching melody of dry leaves, the shrill of the scythe tied to a scarecrow as it swings around (it's meant to keep wild boar away) and the roar of the feral wind. The photography captures magnificently both the vastness of the Basque landscape with its lush valleys and hills and the claustrophobia of the undergrowth (plenty of close-ups and hand-held camera work).

The performances are very good. This was the movie that turned Emma Suárez into Julio Medem's muse (she also acted in 'La Ardilla Roja' and 'Tierra'), placing her into a similar relationship to that between the also Spanish actress Carmen Maura and the award-winning director Pedro Almodóvar.

'Vacas' is above all a surreal tale about two families that are reluctant to lay the ghost of their troublesome past and the heavy price they pay for it. As debut features go, it is a fine one, indeed. It makes me even forgive Medem for his later obsession with male genitalia.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 23rd May at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum

If you thought that my post about Malaysia a few weeks ago was the only account I was going to publish about my stay in that Asian nation, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but no. That was just the start. Tonight we tackle Malaysian cuisine (although the dish is originally from Indonesia) and next week is music's turn.

As I already mentioned in my previous post about Malaysia, the key word to describe its social make-up is 'mix' and so logically its cuisine tends to go in the same direction. The recipe I bring to you tonight comes originally from Indonesia but in KL I saw a very good version. Incidentally it is this version that appears in my cookbook 'A Taste of Southeast Asia', which I purchased in KL, and in it, it comes under... Indonesian cuisine. Over to you, my Malay brothers and sisters.

Roasted Chicken with Turmeric, Lemongrass and Coconut Juice


Chicken drumsticks (deboned)
Turmeric 20g
Lemongrass 2 stalks
Shallots 3
Garlic 2 cloves
A pinch of black pepper
Light soy sauce 1tbsp
Sugar 1tsp
Coconut juice 60ml
Assam water ½ tbsp
Cayenne ½ tbsp

Chop and rinse the turmeric, lemongrass, shallots and garlic. Rinse, drain the chicken drumsticks and mix with the previous ingredients as well as the black pepper, light soy sauce, sugar, coconut juice, assam water and cayenne. Marinate for three hours. Place the marinated chicken drumsticks on a baking rack. Cook in a preheated oven at 250°for 20 minutes. Remove and chop into chunks. Serve with rice (preferably Basmati) drumsticks. Mix with heavy music. And when it came to selecting the melodies for tonight's post my first thought was: my mp3 player. Because many a day I spent lounging by the pool at my brother-in-law's house when we were in Malaysia, listening to my mp3 player whilst reading 'The Female Eunuch' by Germaine Greer. So, the clips you're about to watch tonight have been short-listed from my always loyal mp3 player.

My first offering is a Cuban rap outfit that has done much to highlight the vigour and energy of the hip hop scene in my country of birth. This track, 'Represent', is from their debut album and it's spicy and filling, just like those drumsticks. Enjoy.

Now sit down, lie back and put your feet up because Lou Reed is 'Waiting For the Man'. Originally performed by The Velvet Underground, this version reminds me of how one marinates the chicken for the above recipe. Getting your hands filthy and sticky. No mess, no (good) cooking, in my humble opinion. Plus the album where the original song was included featured a banana (designed by one Andy Warhol) and that's food. So, tune and recipe are related. Thanks.

Continuing with acoustic pieces, we have Sinead O' Connor performing one of my favourite songs ever, 'A Perfect Indian'. When I hear this melody, I think of the food cooking slowly in my oven. I also think of the process of crafting a sensitive piece such as Sinead's and its close relationship to the art of cooking. And then the last line of the song comes back to me: 'And there's only one way to be free'. And that way, to me, is using your creativity.

In the same way that Brazil is a palette of different types of music, so is Malaysia an oblong board of different cultures. It should, then, not come as a surprise that in a post about Malay food I have included one of the most famous Brazilian songs ever, 'Aquarela do Brasil'. And what a marvellous cover version this one is! Enjoy.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Vacas/Cows' (Review), to be published on Thursday 20th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

'The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.'
'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' by Gil Scott-Heron

No, Gil, you're wrong. The revolution will not only be televised but it will also be brought to you live by the twittering classes, with later re-runs on youtube, showing it wearing its dirty underwear on its head and giving two fingers to the status quo. The revolution will then go off to update its profile on facebook.

The revolution, Gil, will be hard to control.

Will? Did I just write 'will'? No, make that 'has been hard to control'.

The advent of the internet narrowed traditionally geographical boundaries whilst widening the margins of democratic discourse. The appearance on the horizon of social networking sites in the last five or six years has made this conversation even more fluid and immediate (even if that urgency sometimes does more harm than good). The benefits this online revolution has brought are manifold. If not, ask The Guardian, a British newspaper which saw its journalistic integrity under threat last October by the oil trading company Transfigura. The corporation had banned the media outlet from reporting a question asked by the Labour MP Paul Ferrelly about Transfigura's injunction on the publication of a report that alleged the company had commissioned the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. Within minutes of the news filtering through, Twitter was flooded with messages condemning Transfigura and demanding that the gagging order against The Guardian be lifted. The newspaper won. Revolution 1, Status Quo 0, Gil.

When Jan Moir, a columnist at that rabid tabloid they still call newspaper and which normally goes under the name of Daily Mail, poured scorn and bile on the still warm body of Stephen Gately for his lifestyle (ex-member of boyband Boyzone and who happened to be gay), the Twitterati rose as one and inundated the Daily Mail with complaints forcing Jan to write a half-hearted apology. Online Revolution 2, Status Quo 0.

But away from the - sometimes - comfortable world of western politics, and into the realm of totalitarian regimes, we see that the digital revolution I've so much eulogised above, is a murkier issue. This is a world full of ups and downs where writing a post disagreeing with the government can cost someone his or her freedom or even their life. We saw it with the Burmese monks challenging the junta with digi-cams a couple of years ago. We witnessed it again with the fracas between the Mukhabarat government in Egypt and activists. And who can forget the most famous photograph in the last twelve months? That of Neda Agha Soltan, the Iranian woman whose bloodied face became the biggest indictment of Ayatollah Ali ­Khamenei's regime. Within minutes of her murder, the image had gone viral and various media outlets around the world reproduced it, thus making the public aware of what was happening on the streets of Tehran.

This cyber-dissent is welcome news. It shows that from Russia to Cuba a new community has been active in the last lustrum. Flash mobs, which started life as juvenile pranks (I saw one at Liverpool Street station many years ago and it was hilarious, it was a gigantic dance wave), have evolved into peaceful insurgency acts. Gandhi would have been proud. Social networking sites have become cheap tools of communication. And since video gadgets are ubiquitous (on mobiles, mp3s, iPods), bloody crackdowns by government forces are not as frequent as before. Also, new technology enthuses people who would often not want to get involved in politics. Call it peer pressure, but of the facebook variety.

Yet, these advantages must be equally measured against the disadvantages. Totalitarian regimes have become quite adept at second-guessing its opponents. Last year Yoani Sánchez, the highest-profile Cuban blogger, still living in Cuba, was beaten by state security agents. The 'great firewall of China' became a reality earlier this year when that country's authorities clashed with Google over censorship issues. Cyber-attacks are launched, not only by dreadlocked anti-capitalists, but also by Russian nationalists. Even western democracies don't escape Big Brother's omnipresent eye. If not, ask Paul Chambers, who posted a joke on Twitter in January and got slapped with a one-thousand-pound fine this week.

My position on this online revolution is pragmatic. By all means, if you care about digital democracy, make sure that you check and double-check (and even triple-check!) that the tools you use against despotic governments are not used against you in return. Social neworking sites were not primarily created to fight against Putin, however privacy should be at the core of its ethos. Let's make the task of finding activists a bit harder for authoritarian regimes. Moreover, many grassroots dissidents don't have access to computers. One of my long-standing disagreements with the Cuban community abroad is the whole rigmarole about access to internet in Cuba. I'm all for it, let's be clear about that, but it is not a priority.To me, more attention should be paid to reaching those right-thinking people who want to bring the radical democratic reforms we so badly need. Let's create a platform for them and give them a voice outside Cuba no matter if it's through Twitter or any other tool. The revolution is here, Gil, and whether we call it cyber or not, it will be Tweetlevised.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...', to be published on Tuesday 18th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar (Review)

'Quizás vivir absurdamente para acabar con el absurdo, tirarse en si mismo con tal violencia que el salto acabara en los brazos de otro.' ('Maybe the answer is to live absurdly to do away with the absurd, to leap into oneself so violently that the leap will end up in another person's arms')

It would be fair to say that the essence of 'Rayuela' ('Hopscotch') lies in the above sentence. Published in 1963, Julio Cortázar's second novel (he'd already had an earlier stab at the longer narrative with 'Los Premios', ['The Awards'], published in 1960) displays the innovative techniques that swept through the world of Hispanic literature at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the next decade. This is the time of Cabrera Infante's 'Tres Tristes Tigres' ('Three Sad Tigers') - reviewed on this blog more than a year go - and Gabo's 'Cien Años de Soledad' ('One Hundred Years of Solitude'). With its convoluted plot and avantgarde approach 'Rayuela' soon joined the ranks of the aforementioned classics.

And at the centre of its success, both critical and commercial, is the author's intent on building up on the vast Hispanoamerican cultural canon and his idea of using creative fantasy, not as a challenge to realism, but as an alternative. It is the reason why I chose that quote to open my review.

The first element that greets the reader who comes to 'Rayuela' for the first time is that it belongs to that clutch of novels that are much talked about and whose significance much highlighted, yet a full explanation of the plot is hardly ever forthcoming. In this category we find 'Ulysses' by Joyce, 'A la Recherche de Temps Perdu' by Proust and 'Paradiso' by Lezama Lima. To avoid making the same mistake, let me break down the storyline from the outset. 'Rayuela' is a love tale.

Horacio Oliveira is an Argentinian based in Paris. There he meets 'La Maga', an Uruguayan expat who has a young child, Rocamadour. They start an on-off relationship which ends with Rocamadour's death (a masterclass on writing's "show, don't tell" golden rule). 'La Maga' allegedly returns to Uruguay (we only have Gregorovius's word for it) and Horacio goes back to Argentina where an old girlfriend of his, Gekrepten, is still waiting for him. In reality he begins to hang out with his childhood friend Traveler and his wife, Talita. In the latter he sees a reincarnation of 'La Maga' and this vision triggers off an emotional crisis.

That, in a nutshell, is 'Rayuela'. But of course there's a lot more. And this is the second element that surprises the reader.

First off, there's the structure. You can digest 'Rayuela' as a normal book from Chapter 1 to Chapter 56 and then read the 'alternative' chapters - called 'prescindibles' in Spanish - (from 57 to 155). In fact my copy has the order the reader ought to follow if they choose that option. At the end of each part and in brackets there's the chapter number that should come after, for instance after the second chapter comes the one-hundred sixteenth). Or you could ignore the alternative parts and just close the book after finishing Chapter 56. In which case you will be missing out on a huge chunk of metaphysical and surrealist analysis, part of what makes 'Rayuela' a classic.

Secondly, there're the levels at which this novel works. 'Rayuela' is a reflection on the contemporary literature of its time (specifically from the 1940s to the 1960s, although it's still relevant today) and the embodiment of such analysis. To achieve this, Cortázar uses Oliveira's inner voice as well as the investigations of one Dr Morelli, a philosopher with whom Horacio and his friends are obsessed. The author is also far from interested in catering to that archetypical reader whose sole purpose is to find out what's going to happen at the end of the book. To him this type of passiveness is damaging to literature. This is the reason why many people consider 'Rayuela' a strenuous read. I found it seducing, dramatic, deep and cheeky in equal measure. At no time did I feel patronised or mocked. And humour plays a fundamental part in keeping the reader hooked.

The 'alternative' chapters, the philosophical musings (the 'ergo' from the phrase 'cogito ergo sum' has lost its meaning, Chapter 2), the 'gíglico' language (Chapter 68), the intentional misspelling of words with 'h' in Spanish (it's a mute consonant, Chapter 69) and the appearance of the same letter in words where it doesn't belong (Chapter 19) all show a writer displaying a high degree of facetiousness. Cortázar himself said once that without the humour 'this book would probably be unbearable, as it's the case with many Latin American novels that shipwreck in themselves, crushed and destroyed by earnestness. I don't even want to think of the passengers on board.'

Finally, along with the humour in the novel, there's another element that makes 'Rayuela' a compelling read: the music. And specifically jazz. Whilst in Paris, Horacio is part of a gang, broadly speaking, who call themselves The Club. They spend most of their time discussing philosophy, literature and music. Jazz becomes their elixir of life. Records are played and changed, strong opinions are voiced (Dizzy Gillespie, for instance, is rubbish, Bessie Smith is superb). At times the novel's pace feels like a piece by Dave Brubeck: meditative and with a syncopated beat. Some other times, the mood is more Ornette Colman: free, improvised and unshackled. Precisely the combination I look for in a novel that comes preceded by so much fanfare.

Must some books be written? Apparently for Julio Cortázar the answer seemed to be yes. In an old interview he said that 'if I hadn't written "Rayuela", I would have thrown myself in the Seine'. Fortunately for us, instead of jumping into the famous French river he leaped into himself and as a result we got a classic.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 16th May at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

One of my favourite cinematic scenes ever comes at the end of 'American Beauty' as Lester Burnham's (played superbly by Kevin Spacey) valedictory speech blends sublimely with the image of a plastic bag tossed around carelessly by the wind. What makes this passage more poignant to me is the opening phrase: 'I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time... '

I often think of those words when analysing creative writing. Do we stretch people's lives when we let our imagination flow? A photographer freezes an image and makes us think of a past and future. What motivated that woman's smile? How come that old man is frowning when he is surrounded by loved ones? And why is that girl running away? Why is she crying? Why is her body covered in napalm? A sculptor tames the hard stone into a three dimensional still. We sometimes see a head, but not the body. The (missing) body is a blank canvas for our imagination. A writer, on the other hand, composes a series of tableaux vivants in motion where we get to stretch and freeze different scenes as and when we wish. I see that bag in the wind as the recipient in which writers put the spoils of their creative search as they go through life. The woman smiles because the girl was saved and her husband frowns because the world is not fair. After all, they still haven't found that missing torso.

How do you hunt similes? Where do you find your metaphores? What sleight of hand do you use to turn that personal name into an antonomastic phrase? I sometimes imagine writers sitting at their desks and asking themselves: 'What colour do I want the car with the driver holding a hands-free mobile phone to be?' I've heard of writers who have internal dialogues with their novels or poems: 'If you fancy something, just say it. Don't hold back.'

In order to stretch that second into a life, writers have to listen to their inner voices. They are the only creatures who are allowed the freedom to cash in on their paranoid schizophrenia. And it is a far from harmonious situation as each of those voices they hear claims to have the upper hand. A writer's job is to delegate roles to each and every one and build a cohesive and cogent argument about the existence of them all. But this suggests a logic. And writing is illogical. Creative writing, that is. You are constantly assailed by these voices that tell you, no! command you to fight them, to wrestle them into submission. To break them into smithereens. Shards. That's what writing sometimes seems to me. A kaleidoscope of confusing but alluring shards.

As my final thought tonight I will paraphrase Spacey's soliloquy in the aforementioned movie (sorry, can't do the voice, though, he's unique in that department, believe me, I saw him at the Old Vic some years ago). It's the very last part of his monologue:

''s hard to stay mad, when there's so much beautiful literature in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then books flow through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, maybe. But don't worry... you will someday. '


Next Post: 'Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar (Review)', to be published on Thursday 13th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Sunday Morning: Coffee, Reflections and Music

At the time of writing this post I’ve yet to cast my vote in the UK general election. By the time you read this column, though, we might have a new prime minister. Or maybe a hung parliament. And if it’s the latter, it’d better be well hung, what with the lack of female politicians on the campaign trail, if your poison of choice is testosterone, it’d better stick out from the beginning so that it can rise to the occasion. And yes, all puns are intended.

Or maybe the hung parliament will hang so low that its fate will go the same way as Ellis Drummond, the teenager from Rushden, whose asbo (Antisocial Behaviour Order) prevented him from ‘wearing trousers so low beneath the waistline that members of the public are able to see your underwear’. Taking into account that David Cameron’s Big Society idea was just pants, an asbo on an incoming parliament wouldn’t be out of place.

But before today's Sunday outing becomes an unabashed version of a ‘Carry On’ film, let me come clear. I have fond memories of the 1997 general election. Why? Because I had just visited Britain for the first time in April that year and my flight back to Havana took off a couple of days after Labour’s historical landslide in early May.

During that month I remember enthusiasm, effervescence and a sense of confidence in the future. The famous British upper lip was nowhere to be found, at least in London. When I rode the tube I overheard people talking about getting rid of the Tories and how Tony Blair was going to fix the country.

We all know what happened after, however. What started off as overenthusiastic praise for the White House and the 'special relationship' (why is there never a Relate counsellor available when you desperately need one?), ended up with a full-time membership of Vatican PLC.

And yet, this type of two-faced politics never put me off voting. I voted even when I wasn't supposed to (in 2001 I was sent a ballot paper by mistake). I've stated my political sentiments with an 'X' four times in the course of twelve and a half years (I include the London mayoral elections, too). What's moved me to vote? Here are a few reasons.

I vote because I owe it to my fellow Cuban compatriots who don't have the opportunity of changing the government themselves when and how they see fit.

I vote because it's part of the process of adapting to a country with the oldest parliamentary structure in the world. Perfect, it isn't and neither would I like it to be. But it works most of the time.

When I vote I am mindful of the three following elements: what is important to me socially, politically and economically - that is, my beliefs -, what's likely to happen (I call it reality check) and how I feel about the result. The latter is fundamental. It's what makes some people despondent about the whole electoral system and others optimistic. In my case and putting my pragmatic hat on, my vote has made a difference. It has ensured that the SureStart programme continues to support less well-off families, it got rid of the shameful Section 28 (enacted by the Thatcher government and aimed at eliminating the mention and teaching of homosexuality in schools), it brought the minimum wage, the Freedom of Information Act (which in a subtle touch of irony is being undermined by the same government that introduced it. Who said that slapstick comedy was dead?), regeneration programmes that tackled housing and unemployment. But my vote has done a lot of damage, too. It gave us the invasion of Iraq, political spin as a substitute for substance and the erosion of civil liberties. And let's not forget those MPs milking the system.

So, voting is not easy. It is an arduous task and one that I've never underestimated. Of course, you could say that there's another way. And indeed there is: abstention.

I look up to people who opt out. And my appreciation is once again rooted in my background. Abstaining from voting in Cuba is a no-no. I once met a man who spent a couple of years in jail for leaving his ballot paper blank. Don’t ask how the officials knew that he had not voted. It’s common knowledge that elections are rigged in Cuba. Over here, though, people who write ‘None of the above’ are making a statement against political sleaze. And sometimes we need strong assertions like that. My only concern comes with the degree of responsibility the abstainers assume. Or the lack of it thereof. Because let’s be clear about one thing, even when you don’t turn up to vote, you’re still voting. I know it’s a contradiction but the truth is that someone will be elected. And that someone (MP, councillor, Prime Minister) might be worse than the option against you were fighting. If it’s a member of the Monster Raving Loony Party we might be in for a good laugh. But what if it’s the BNP or Ukip, or any other racist political outlet? How do I explain to my children that the jackboot that left a mark on my face was the consequence not just of lack of faith in a flawed political system, but also apathy?

That’s why I vote. Because it’s difficult, messy, complex and sometimes unpredictable. At the time of writing, the Best Newcomer Act award in the UK general election goes to Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Whilst in pole position for the ‘Went Out to Get Some Bread and Bagged Me a Prime Minister Instead’ award goes to Gillian Duffy from Rochdale, otherwise known as ‘Bigoted Woman’.

But that’s enough thinking for today. After all, it’s Sunday, and right now the fire in my belly can only be put out by a good old bass hook. Over to you, Suzanne!

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts', to be published on Tuesday 11th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Clichés)

There are many pitfalls of which writers/journalists/columnists/bloggers have to be aware but one hazard stands out the most: the cliché. Mental blocs, though repudiated, provide respite – at least that’s my interpretation -, especially in stressful times. One’s attention is diverted to meatier issues. Sources of inspiration can dry up, but one must always keep a positive mind that somewhere, just around the corner lurks the next topic about which to write. Possibly inside a folder held by Erato across her chest. These two dangers, however, pale in comparison to that moment when you have drafted up what at first looked like a well-crafted chapter/poem/article/post, only to find out post-revision that you cluttered it with endless clichés. L’horreur, l’horreur!

And yet, who can claim to have escaped such fate? Who can aver to having had the capacity for thinking outside the box and saved the day at the last minute?

Not many raised hands, I see. And that’s because we need clichés. In fact, sometimes we depend on them.

In my case as a language undergraduate student I noticed the following mental process when learning English: translation/interpretation (especially at the beginning), recognition, gradual understanding without the help of your bilingual dictionary (this is almost like a toddler letting go of the arm of the chair) and finally thinking. And that last element means thinking in the language you are learning. It’s at that moment when clichés make their (un)desired appearance.

Although you will eventually become fully fluent in the language you choose to learn, deep inside you know that you will never, ever be a native speaker. There will always be elusive idioms and linguistic term you will not get. That’s no reason to despair, though, because platitudes become your support device, your linguistic walking stick. And like a trekking aid, you don’t need them all the time, but you like to know that they’re still there. Just in case. The situation gets complicated when you want to break away from those ‘helpful’ clichés because you believe yourself to be self-sufficient in your new language, yet you find that it’s nigh impossible.

To demonstrate how clichés can be useful I’ll tell you an anecdote. When I was in my fourth year at university I had to hand in a paper for my English literature class. At the time I was hooked on writers like Dean R Koontz, Thomas Harris and Scott Turow. When the day to present my assignment arrived and I had zilch to show (a situation that occurred frequently in my student days) I grabbed a handful of novels I had on my shelf at home by the aforementioned authors and began to write down my thoughts on the book we had discussed in class, using some of the newspapers quotes on the back of the novels in front of me (you call it cheating, I call it being creative). The majority were clichés (‘a rollercoaster of a book!’, ‘another thumbs-up novel by [insert author’s name here]) but that mattered not one jot to me. I re-arranged them in such a way that my paper looked like it was an Op-Ed in the New York Times. By the way, I am not implying that the Times is cliché-ridden, I am just stating that my solution was a bit of blue-sky thinking. Or blue-skying.

But away from the world of assignments, dissertations and essays that make up a student’s life, and on Planet Literature now, well, here clichés are not a welcome sight for me. The minute I smell that the author is pandering to commonality, and even worse, that his or her attempt is below par, I give the book the old heave-ho. Luckily that hasn’t happened for a few years. The last such piece I encountered had a hackneyed plot involving terrorists and third world poverty. The only reason I soldiered on till the end was that I don’t like closing books halfway through. But, my God, was I tempted!

And yet, I do also feel sympathy towards authors. And also towards journalists, columnists and fellow bloggers. Because in our desire to escape from the trite expressions that might pervert our craft, we fail to see what lies in front of us: an open trap at the bottom of which treacherous spikes glisten with the poison of stereotypes and inauthenticity licking their sharp ends. But far from feeling dispirited, we would do better to re-think our approach to clichés. Sometimes, as I mentioned at the beginning they are necessary. Haven’t you ever found yourself reading a book (fiction, poetry, scientific journal, whatever) and longed for a familiar phrase? That’s nothing to do with the author’s quality; it’s to do with the human need for what’s recognisable. In this context the cliché is a metaphor for the acquaintance we come across at a dinner party where we don’t know anyone else. And although we discard them the minute we become the soul of the party (cruel, I know, but the show must go on) that person is there to act as a sign of convention.

Let’s get real, my cyber-pals, too many clichés can asphyxiate a good narrative. But sprinkle a few of them around your text and your word soup will taste better. After all there’s only so much pushing the envelope one can do.

Image taken from The Boston Globe

© 2010

 Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 9th May at 10am(GMT)

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Once (Review)

Most of the films I’ve reviewed so far in this space have been either movies I’d already seen and wanted to enjoy again, or famous titles I couldn’t watch at the cinema at the time of their release. Since I am a member of Love Film, a UK-based DVD rental company, I take full advantage of their vast and eclectic collection and Sunday nights have become for my wife and me our weekly rendezvous with the world of cinemascope.

Occasionally, though, I choose randomly a movie I’ve never heard of. The motivation can based on the DVD’s cover design, or the synopsis, or the genre in which it is included, whatever the reason is, the process is totally unpremeditated and the result is often satisfactory. That was the case with ‘Once’, an Irish film.

This modern-day musical tells the story of a busker on the streets of Dublin, Ireland. One day, a Czech girl stops to listen to him and, impressed by the emotional frankness of his compositions, tries to find out more about his music and what spurs him to write it. It turns out the street performer (at no point is he or the woman given names) helps his dad repair vacuum cleaners, though his heart is set on becoming a recording musician. By happenstance the Czech’s Hoover is faulty and this gives her the perfect excuse to create a bond with the busker. She also has a musical background of her own; she plays the piano and writes songs. Romance blossoms but dangers lie ahead. The Irish lad is attempting to recover from a break-up with his long-term girlfriend who’s upped sticks and moved to London. For the Czech woman the situation is even more complicated; she is raising a young daughter in Ireland and her husband is trying to join them both.

Once’ is one of those movies that leaves the viewer with a spring in their step. Told through the power of music, it unites two people whose personal circumstances are poles apart. The man still lives at home with his father and although he finds it hard to make ends meet, his situation is very different from the Czech woman. She is an immigrant, doing odd jobs here and there (at one point she works as a florist), living at home with her mother and daughter, in a squalid flat where there’s no telephone and everyone has to share one bedroom. Every evening a group of lads come down to her apartment to watch telly since hers is the only one in the building. Money is tight, not to say almost non-existent. Yet, she doesn’t let this situation bring her down. She usually sports a wide grin on her face and becomes the driving force in the busker’s musical enterprise. It’s thanks to her efforts that the musician puts a demo together in the hope of getting a contract.

The script is excellent. I loved its nuances and subtleties. In a move that I imagine might have been a bit awkward with the film’s backers, the writer/director John Carney refuses to let the romance follow its natural course. And to me that’s one of the reasons why ‘Once’ pull its weight way above the current crop of Jennifer Anistonesque rom-coms: the movie is unpredictable. What the director gives us instead is the power of friendship, the gradations of love. In this endeavour he is helped by the superb performances of both Glen Hansard, frontman of the band ‘Frames’ (coincidentally the director John Carney used to play bass in the same group), in the busker’s role and Markéta Irglová as the Czech woman. The latter, especially, displays such a natural, organic thespian knack that it’s hard to believe she was only nineteen when the movie was released. Script and acting are supported throughout the film by a great soundtrack where tracks ‘Falling Slowly’ and ‘The Hill’ blend magnificently with the grey Dublin landscape.

In the end the busker shoots off to London in an attempt to re-build his life with his ex-girlfriend. Meanwhile the Czech woman has just received news from her husband that he will finally be joining her and their daughter soon. The final shot is an ode to hope, love and above all friendship.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 6th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I don’t often pay attention to political slogans. Sloganeering was almost a way of life in Cuba when I was growing up and it still is, so, in a way I have become inured to the standard big billboard bellowing platitudinous political messages.

However the caption ‘1Malaysia’ rings true even before you set a foot on Kuala Lumpur. Mixed with the western tourists escaping the still chilly spring days, plenty of Malays were on board of the Air Asia flight that took my family and me to KL recently. The various tonalities of their skins, their facial features and their accents hinted at diversity. Having been to that Southeastern nation before in 2008, I wasn’t surprised of this element but still it was a good reminder of what’s made Malaysia a success story in latter years.

I wouldn’t be doing KL any justice if I attempted to sum up its charms in a few hundred words. My only advice is, get on a plane and visit it. The experience of mixing with the locals, riding on the public transport and enjoying its out-of-this-world.cuisine is unique beyond description.

Whether you go to a local joint like Suzi’s Corner, where Malay, Indian and Chinese dishes are served in a mirthful atmosphere or you nip out for a quick lunch at one of the many ‘chicken and rice’ restaurants that populate the corners of KL, you’re in for a treat. As long as you’re not a fussy eater, like yours truly. My first discovery this time around came the day after we arrived when we went to the aforementioned Suzi’s and I had lychee juice. This fruit has a large single seed with an edible aril. After gulping down my juice I kept nibbling at the flesh (the staff usually leave the actual fruit at the bottom of the glass), turning the sweet, jellylike pulp around my mouth and milking it for all it was worth. Needless to say lychee juice became an accompaniment in many meals out.

Whereas two years ago we spent four or five days in Redang, an island to the east of Malaysia, this time we stayed in KL the whole time. That was partly due to the civil unrest in Thailand, a country included in our itinerary. However, rather than allowing ourselves to be browbeaten by a situation that was out of our reach, we decided to spend more time walking the city and admiring its culture and history. Yet, as parents of younger children will know, what interests adults, hardly ever holds any special significance to a member of the younger generation. So, in order to take advantage of Malaysia's rich heritage we also had to include visits to the Aquarium and the Watersports Park.

Still, we had plenty of fun in the city of the ‘muddy confluence’. That’s the meaning of Kuala Lumpur’s name and as if it was trying to prove that point on the same day that we visited the Thean Hou Temple – a building that boasts the richest features of Chinese architecture in Malaysia, according to its brochure - KL also gave us a call to prayer in a nearby mosque in one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard (in fact, the man who intoned the prayer could have given the contestants of American Idol a run for their money). Just the day before, we had gone to Brickfields, a stronghold of Indian culture, which was a short walk from KL Sentral station. Whether this cultural assemblage was swampy, I don’t know, but to a person with an inquisitive nature like me, it helped me understand better the country’s ethos, 1Malaysia.

To me markets are one of the ways of measuring a city’s beating pulse. And KL never disappoints. Whether it is a local – mainly Chinese – fruit'n'veg one like the one in Yulik, or a crafts one like the more famous Central Market, the visitor will be exposed to a wide variety of products that cater to all tastes. In Central Market’s case, this is a building that could be considered to be the equivalent of Covent Garden in London, but with lower prices. The stalls combine antiques, beautiful, hand-made local products and the usual stuff for tourists that exists in any major city.

The road infrastructure is pretty good (plenty of A-roads and flyovers that circumnavigate the city), so, moving from place to place is not that difficult. At first the sight of motorcyclists wearing their jackets back to front was puzzling, until my brother-in-law’s wife explained to me that they do it because of the dust. It’s nice to know that human beings always come up with effective solutions to turn up looking nice at work. The little experience I had with the train network was satisfactory with the staff always willing to help.

Going back to the Malaysian cuisine, I suffered a major casualty because of it. On the day we were due to return, I received a resignation letter from my nose. In it my organ of smell informed me that it’d sooner stay amongst the fragrances of spices such as turmeric, chilli and sambal than return to the vapours emanating from the factories near my house in London. Fair enough, I could see its point. My nose also had made new friends whose names betrayed the pungent roots on which much cooking in Malaysia was based: galangal and ginger. So, now, I am the Cuban in London With a Prosthetic Nose. My only hope is that I can do a Nicole Kidman and take an Oscar home with me.

For some reason I kept thinking of Cuba whenever I was downtown or in a working class area. The buildings, the people and the roads, they reminded me of my country of birth. Even the architecture was similar. Some of the edifices reminded of the famous ‘cajitas de fósforos’ (boxes of matches) that were the butt of many jokes amongst people of my age. These were Soviet-style buildings that appeared in the Cuban landscape at the tail end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. In KL, I saw a few. Some other areas were the total opposite. For instance, Bangsar is an affluent neighbourhood with gated houses and guarded blocks of flats.

I wasn’t looking for anyone, and yet I saw you’. That line was part of a song I posted a few weeks ago. The melody was written by the Argentinian pop and rock singer, Fito Páez, and on that occasion, I uploaded a version by the Brazilian performer Caetano Veloso. The refrain came to me again in Malaysia because I wasn’t looking for music and yet I came across one of the more refreshing and vibrant voices I’ve heard in recent months. Zee Avi is a Malay singer whose debut album has been playing on my stereo almost everyday since I returned from KL. A review of the album will follow soon but in the meantime I shall leave you with this charming and beautiful song. Have a great week.

(all photos by the blog author)

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Once' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 4th May at 11:59pm (GMT)


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